Ask the Doctor: Avoiding Hospital Infections; Numb Hands & Feet

Q: I’m going to the hospital for a minor procedure, but I will have to stay a couple of days. I’m worried about picking up an infection while there. What can I do to reduce my risk?

A: During hospital stays, good hygiene is essential for both patients and health-care providers. All doctors, nurses, and any other healthcare providers should wash their hands or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer before they make contact with you. Many will perform hand hygiene in your presense so that it is clear that they have sanitized their hands. If they don’t and you’re not sure, ask if they have done so. It can be intimidating, but it’s more important to speak up on your own behalf than to be afraid of offending someone. Also, keep in mind that you, too, should cleanse your hands routinely, as should any loved one who will be touching you. Doorknobs, handrails, countertops, anything touched has the potential to harbor bacteria. Also, be sure to wash your hands with soap and water before eating and after using the bathroom. If you have a history of harboring bacteria, your health-care provider may also take extra precaution by wearing gloves, a gown, or other protective equipment. About 30 percent of people carry the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus (also called staph) on their skin without knowing it or having any repercussions from it. But because this bacteria is implicated in postoperative infections, your physician may ask you to be screened for it. This is typically done by gathering a sample from the inside of your nose with a cotton swab. If staph is found, your doctor may prescribe several days of special bath soap and nose ointment. These treatments reduce, but don’t completely eliminate risk. What you do after surgery greatly matters as well. Take medications as prescribed, wash your hands before and after any wound care, and keep the wound clean and dry to prevent infection. If you’re permitted to shower, be sure to allow your incision to dry completely before applying a clean and dry bandage. You should be provided with complete wound care instructions, but know that hydrogen peroxide and alcohol are not recommended. Likewise, avoid using any ointments unless advised by your doctor. If you notice any warning signs of infection, such as increased swelling, pain, redness or fever, contact your health-care provider immediately.

Q: Sometimes my hands and feet feel numb and tingly in bed at night. What might be causing this?

A: A common reason why this can occur is the position in which you sleep. For example, sleeping on your belly with your arms under your body, or face up with your hand behind your head, can put pressure on nerves, causing arms/hands to tingle. Reposition yourself to relieve the pressure, and the tingly feeling often ceases. These sensations can be a sign of peripheral neuropathy, a type of nerve damage that can result from injuries, repetitive stress, nutritional deficiencies, heavy alcohol consumption, and medical conditions such as diabetes. About 30 percent of patients with diabetes experience numbness and tingling in their hands and feet. Sometimes, medications, such as antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs can also lead to neuropathy.

Symptoms can range from mild to disabling. Rarely are they life-threatening, but they can be painful, depending on the severity of the nerve damage. Shingles, for example, can lead to quite painful nerve damage. The newer recombinant zoster vaccine (Shingrix) is recommended for adults over age 60 and prevents 95 percent of cases.

Depending on the cause, the symptoms may improve on their own.Unlike nerve cells in the central nervous system, peripheral nerve cells continue to grow throughout life. Typically, symptoms appear on both sides of the body. If they’re only on one side, they’re likely the outcome of nerve compression or poor circulation. If tingling is persistent, seek medical treatment to reduce long-term damage risk.

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